Comedy quacks

The word "improvisation" is often bandied about when people talk about stand-up comedy; indeed, the most famous comedy club chain in America was named after it. But watching HBO's Comedy Showcase or Comedy Central's A-List, you'll find precious little real improvisation. The reason is simple: Improv comedy by its very definition demands that every viewer be a participant in the evolution of the evening's material. Comparing a videotaped improv show to the live experience is a little like equating pornography and sex: The former quickly lapses into a crushing bore if used as a replacement for the real business of boogie.

Come to think of it, the sex and improv-comedy analogy can be extended. Think of the comic as one partner and the audience as the other. The moods of both must be simpatico to the larger goal of mutual pleasure, which means even the slightest misstep by the suitors on stage--an offensive word, a lame gesture, a half-hearted characterization--guarantees that the enthusiasm of both parties will quickly dissipate. This is what makes improv comedy among the scariest and most satisfying of theatrical endeavors. While the payoff is immediate for the actor in every live performance, no other discipline requires such a continuous courtship of audience favor or such profound reserves of charm and ingenuity by the performer.

And so it must be mentioned at the outset of this review of Sex & Politics '96, the new show by the improv comedy team 4 Out of 5 Doctors, that the audience on the night I attended was a pretty docile bunch. Maybe by the time the 11 p.m. show began everyone was too drunk or too full of food to apply their wits to the performance. There was hearty scattered laughter throughout the show and a few good suggestions when ticket buyers were tapped for specific improv inspirations, but mostly the patrons were parked in their seats like a collection of blow-up dolls.

This is not to say that the four men and two women who constitute this edition of 4 Out of 5 Doctors were sun-kissed geniuses of political clowndom, desperately scrambling for approval in the dimness of the theater's general ennui. Indeed, Mark Fickert, Gary Walters, R. Bruce Elliot, Kerry Cole, Vince Davis, and Ellen Locy enjoyed some of their best moments in the midst of an utterly disastrous skit. They earned honest chuckles by thinking on their feet and yanking the audience back into the action with some more often than not bawdy witticisms.

Half the show was audience-driven improvisation, the other half sketches and song parodies. There were a variety of public figures tweaked by impersonators: Bob Dole, Janet Reno, Ross Perot, Newt Gingrich, Bill and Hillary. The imbalance of targets was interesting; the freshness or staleness of a particular political presence in comedy can serve as a barometer of public sympathy. Bill Clinton, just two years ago the favorite whipping boy of one tedious right-wing talk-show host after another, makes barely a cameo in Sex & Politics '96. His one extended appearance proved a worthy excursion: Janet Reno is his partner in a parody of the game show $20,000 Pyramid. No matter how bizarre or eclectic the clues she reads him, he usually answers with some variation of: "Things You'd Find in a Motel Room."

If one member of 4 Out of 5 Doctors deserves special mention for consistent ingenuity, it has to be Mark Fickert. The tall, bug-eyed Fickert searched deep in his soul and coughed up a priceless Bob Dole that was the evening's anchor for reliable laughs. His rubber face stretched into a slack mask, constantly making attempts at high-spiritedness only to get trapped in the net of Dole's humorlessness, Fickert offered a vision of the 1996 Republican candidate more ghoulish than the man himself.

The sketches were accompanied by piped-in radio announcements that hype some unlikely merchandise, like psychobabble self-help tomes written by politicians. Hot off the presses comes Men Are From Mars, Women Are Liars by Bob Packwood.

These were highlights in an otherwise damp atmosphere of unrealized potential. Ultimately, Sex & Politics '96 is an awfully flabby show, surprising when you consider the high energy most of the comics devote to it. And when you take a gander at the high-octane issues surrounding the 1996 presidential election, you can't help but hold 4 Out of 5 Doctors to an especially high standard. These days, your average American is plugged deeply into national politics thanks to CNN and talk radio. These days, anyone with a television and an opinionated nature could apply for political satirist Mark Russell's job.

How did a version of the Presidents of the United States of America's song "Lump" rewritten as "Limp," a commentary on Bob Dole's wounded arm, survive the brainstorming phase? ("He's limp, he's limp, he's limp/He can't jack-off.") We're offended, all right; not because Mr. Dole's war injury can't withstand a truly inspired cheap shot, but because 4 Out of 5 Doctors hasn't peered underneath the mattress to discover the less obvious connections between the two topics in the show's title. Sex & Politics '96 wants to mount its conquests with insightful authority, but when the really naughty opportunities arise, the Doctors can't get it up.

Sex & Politics '96 runs through September 7. Call 821-1860.


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